After he completed his theatre acting course in Delhi’s National School of Drama, Om Puri desperately wanted to shift base to Pune, to study acting at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), but he had no money to do so. In his memoir And Then One Day, actor Naseeruddin Shah gives a brief account of how he “prevailed upon Om” to come to FTII and why the latter was disappointed about his education at the institute.
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Puri’s friends had managed to arrange a sponsor to pay for his studies, but the ‘sponsor’ never sent any funds, leaving him dependent on the kindness and generosity of his classmates and well-wishers.
Shah writes in his autobiography: “So taken was I with what I was learning at FTII that I had prevailed upon Om, who was then in the NSD Repertory, to come there as well, which he did…He was dissatisfied and seemed uninterested … Not so strange, considering that Prof T’s (Roshan Taneja) participation in the department was now minimal and the students were now completely at the mercy of the instructors.”
In the biography Om Puri: The Unlikely Hero, written by Nandita C Puri, Puri explained why he was disappointed with FTII. “Some (teachers) were ex-students who, for want of a better career, had joined FTII. The speech trainers were particularly bad. After NSD, it was frustrating at FTII,” the book quoted him as saying.
The book also mentioned how Puri “depended on friends for basic items like food and clothes” and how a certain Chitale, who ran the canteen at that time, gave him food without charging a paisa.
In fact, as per the book, Puri never paid his fees of Rs 280 to FTII. Once he started “doing well”, FTII reminded him about the pending fees, but Puri refused to pay the amount, just for the “impish thrill” of owning the institute some money.
Puri’s friends at the institute recalled how he was “extremely quiet and reserved” for an acting student. While his batchmates such as Satish Shah attribute it to the “culture shock” Puri received after he came to FTII from NSD, others like K Hariharan and Virendra Saini – both film direction students at that time – think it was deliberate as he took his work seriously.
“He had no option since he wasn’t half as handsome – a requirement at that time for actors – as his batchmates like Rakesh Bedi, Mukesh Khanna, Tom Alter or Benjamin Giliani,” said Hariharan, who directed Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), which marked Puri’s debut as an actor.
Satish Shah, an acting student like Puri, said when the batch was about to finish the course, direction student Saeed Mirza made a documentary, ‘An Actor Prepares’, interviewing acting students about what they felt about their prospects in Bollywood. Shah remembered that most of his batchmates, including Puri, were pessimistic in their outlook.
“I was the only one who gave a positive and confident quote. However, Om, despite his ordinary looks, tasted success much earlier than all of us. The visionary director identified the potential in him and his career took off,” Shah told The Indian Express.
Anil Zankar, who now heads the Film Studies Department at FTII and was a year junior to Puri, felt that the late actor’s commitment to work played a great role in his success. “In my first year, I was assisting a classmate with an academic project in which Om Puri had a role. A day before the shoot, he had gone to Mumbai and we were worried if he would make it in time for the shoot. To our surprise, he took an overnight passenger train from Mumbai, reached Pune at 5.30 am and reported for the shoot at 7 in the morning,” said Zankar.
On Friday, the FTII community held a condolence meet at the campus to pay tribute to one of its most renowned alumni, who was also a great personality in the Indian film fraternity, a man who gave a voice and face to the underprivileged and, of course, someone who still owed the institute Rs 280 in fees.